There will be an Arab team in the knockout stages of the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup, but Tunisia made it through by the narrowest of margins and will take on Brazil in the second round on Wednesday.
At the end of the group stage, the North Africans were the fourth of the four best third-placed teams to go through, edging out France courtesy of a slightly better goal difference after both finished on three points.
It shouldn’t have been so tense. Earlier on Sunday, Tunisia were heading for a 0-0 draw against Uruguay in Group E that would have been enough.
In the 92nd minute, however, captain Ghaith Ouahabi handled in the area and Franco Gonzalez scored the only goal of the game. While it was a deserved win for the South Americans, it was a bitter pill to swallow, not least for Ouahabi, who had been a standout in the backline. A late booking meant that the defender would miss the Brazil match, but he will be relieved that his team are not now on their way home from Argentina.
After full-time, the players had to wait for the result from Honduras and France. If Honduras won, it was all over for Tunisia, and the Central Americans took an early lead as the Europeans went down to 10 men. It looked ominous, but then France came roaring back to lead 3-1. The problem then was that if they scored one more, then they would be going through. It did not happen, but it made for a stressful few hours.
Earlier, both Uruguay and Tunisia knew that a draw would be enough for both, and the Arab team, who had sat back for the most part in the 3-0 win over Iraq three days previously before showing some clinical finishing, were always likely to employ similar methods against Uruguay. The South Americans made most of the running and had 12 attempts on goal by the half-hour, though that did not do enough to trouble the in-form Dries Arfaoui in goal.
At the break, the young Carthage Eagles were happy with the way it was going and were also starting to put the Uruguay backline under a little pressure, though Fabricio Diaz should have opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time, left unmarked at close range with just the goalkeeper to beat, but scuffed his shot.
Uruguay’s dominance was not quite as pronounced after the break even if they did have much more of the possession and many more chances. If there was a feeling ahead of the game that the two teams would be happy to play out a goalless draw, that was not the case as the game reached the latter stages.
Both were trying to get the goal that would give them second place and, in theory, an easier game in the next round. It almost came in the last minute of normal time as Alan Matturro headed against the bar. The offside flag had been raised but it was close.
And then Uruguay was awarded that late penalty as Ouahabi handled. After Gonzalez scored, there was just not enough time for Tunisia to come back. They just had to wait and hope that France and Honduras drew or the Europeans picked up a narrow win.
There was no such waiting for Iraq. The last time the Lions of Mesopotamia participated, they defeated England on their way to a fourth place, but this time the Arab team was as good as out at the earliest stage.
It started with a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Uruguay with the South Americans taking advantage of defensive mistakes to take control of the game. The performance against Tunisia was better, and Iraq had the better of the first half. Unfortunately, the team’s lack of cutting edge meant that chances were not taken. Tunisia gave a lesson in clinical finishing after the break and ran out 3-0 winners. That ended any realistic chances of getting out of the group.
On the face of it, a 0-0 draw with England is a decent result. The Three Lions had already secured their place in the second round but had four excellent chances before the break, including a penalty from Liam Delap that was brilliantly saved by Hussein Hassan.
This was a better performance from Iraq though and they asked questions, especially after the break, but once again the absence of a goal scorer proved costly. No goals in three games tells its own story.
Tunisia still have another chance to write theirs.